The Get Down
Each episode of The Get Down orbits a single thematic element that builds on the one before. In order, the show has examined myth, dreams, hustle, redemption, success, power, and duality. This episode is about “revelation,” in both a Biblical and dictionary sense. Called “The Beat Says This Is the Way,” it opens with Shao reading Books’s Yale essay, revealing all the latter feared to tell him, and ends with a series of “come to Jesus” meetings that feel apocalyptic.
The episode begins against the strains of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” the mournful 1978 slow-jam classic whose opening line remains the most shattering accusation in R&B: “You abandoned me. Love don’t live here anymore.” The song is one of three repeated musical motifs: In the song’s first appearance, Shao is spinning this disc on his turntable while reading Books’s essay, blissfully unaware that Gwen Dickey’s beautiful voice is singing an anguished portent of doom. By episode’s end, the future of the Get Down Brothers will be in doubt.
Shao is interrupted by Boo-Boo, who amusingly ask-yells, “Are you alone?” Boo-Boo is visiting Shao because he wants to run drugs for him. Switching into big-brother mode, Shao asks him, “Are you fucking stupid? You got a good family. I don’t got that. I never had that. That’s my reason for being in this shit.”
Shao then asks, “What’s your reason?” Boo-Boo looks heavenward and whispers “Carmelita.” Carmelita’s name is accompanied on the soundtrack by another musical motif, 1977’s Oscar-winning song “You Light Up My Life,” by Debby Boone. This syrupy nightmare was supposed to be about God, but I’ve always believed Pat Boone’s daughter was singing about some awesome reefer. Regardless of what lit Debby up, she had the biggest hit of that year. If this is the jam that symbolizes Carmelita, then her trifling ass is not worth getting a face full of bullets! (Carmelita does make an appearance later — she deserved a better song.)
Still, Boo-Boo persists, and when he threatens to work for a rival drug dealer, Shao gives in and offers him an assignment. Better to work for an ally who’ll keep tabs on him than for someone who would, in Shao’s words, “knife the shit out of you.” Boo-Boo makes his first angel dust run to a Vietnam vet who “knows ten ways to kill people with his little finger.” The delivery is a success and Boo-Boo gets the payday he thinks will impress Carmelita.
Boo-Boo’s bro, Ra-Ra, also visits Shao with designs on making money, but his game plan is vastly different. He’s there to play up the potential monetary value of the get down. “In order to make money, you need to make a record,” Shao tells him. “And making records with other people’s music is illegal!” (Just ask Biz Markie, who got the vapors sued out of him for sampling “Alone Again, Naturally,” a song that is, dare I say, worse than “You Light Up My Life.” Biz won that lawsuit, by the way, proving that “Nobody Beats the Biz” was an apt song title.)
But I digress. Ra-Ra is quite forward-thinking about the future value of hip-hop culture. “The get down is the next great American musical genre, no doubt!” he tells Shao. “There’s Meat Loaf money in it!” “You’ve got the vision, Ra-Ra,” Shao says. “It’s your superpower.” Armed with that power, the duo go to Les Inferno to broker a deal with Fat Annie, who is disco dancing with her son, Cadillac, when they arrive. Despite Cadillac’s intimidation methods, Ra-Ra successfully makes the case that the Get Down Brothers can fill Les Inferno “on its wack-est night.” Said night is Monday, which also happens to be the same day Ra-Ra makes this arrangement. Our heroes have mere hours to make this work. Failure means they’ll have to work for free from now on.
“See you later tonight,” Fat Annie says, a mischievous grin on her face.
In a surprising moment of truth, Books reveals to Mylene the real reason he didn’t show up for her Tiger Beat shoot. Chasing her as she runs from their lunch date, Books is stunned by Mylene’s own truth-telling about Shane. “You smoked weed with another dude?” Books asks incredulously. “You kissed another girl,” Mylene counters. They both call evens on this one, continuing their date at a screening of The Wiz.
The “World Trade Center as Emerald City” version of The Wiz is the perfect metaphor for folks who grew up in the shadow of the majesty that once symbolized Manhattan. But Books has other emotions on his mind at the theater. His successful foreplay attempt leads to an afternoon of passionate sex. While this occurs, we get our third musical motif, Donna Summer’s orgasmic classic “Love to Love You Baby.” Later, when Mylene dishes to her girls about how Books’s good lovin’ made her sing along with Donna, Regina exclaims “Ooh, you got turnt out!”
Over at Marrakesh, Roy wants his listeners to revel in the sounds of Mylene being “turnt out.” Shane presents a moan-filled song meant for Misty Holloway, but Roy says no one wants to hear the moans of his 30-year-old ex-girlfriend. “We need young, sexy tits for this song!” Roy roars. “Have you seen Mylene’s?” But Papa Fuerte is not onboard with this repackaging of his religious niece. He proposes an album of ballads, singing a few bars of “You Light Up My Life” to prove that clean-cut ballads can indeed sell records. Jackie writes a ballad that’s just as arguably lyrically misleading as Debby Boone’s (see: her song is about God, not the man she loves), but Roy remains unconvinced. Sin sells more records than redemption. He hatches a plan to scare Mylene into doing his bidding, which she may have to do if she wants to keep her father’s new, enormous church space filled to capacity.
No description I can offer would do justice to the fantastic disco versus rap battle that unfolds at Les Inferno between Cadillac’s crew and the victorious Get Down Brothers, a fight enhanced by Aretha Franklin, Bill Conti’s Rocky theme, and more of the animated comic-book panels Dizzee’s been sending to Thor. Instead, I want to focus on Books’s other attempt at life-changing success, his internship with Mr. Gunns.
As Books navigates the new, lily-white worlds of downtown Manhattan and Ivy League culture, The Get Down has subtly become more menacing. The Bronx may have its violent dangers, but these are the devils’ books. A different kind of fight-or-flight plan is in order when dealing with so-called polite society. The Get Down implies that the only difference between hustling for Fat Annie and trying to gain entrance into the more socially respectable system of Ivy League and Wall Street success is that the latter takes a lot longer to crush your soul. At least Fat Annie promises a mercifully quick demise.
Gunns invites Books to a party where he can submit his entrance essay to Yale’s dean in person. The party is presented as a racist dog and pony show where charity cases are paraded around under the guise of white liberals paying their privileged success forward. When Books mistakenly assumes the white men in the room are his competition, Mr. Gunns takes him into a room filled with minorities. Books realizes he’s a pawn in a bigger game being played by Papa Fuerte, Mayor Koch, and Mr. Gunns. This revelation becomes more painful with the racist jokes and macho posturing he must endure without complaint or defense. Books also overhears that Papa Fuerte had been played by Mayor Koch, who never intended to build the Bronx housing he promised in exchange for votes.
Some viewers will bitch about the depiction of this social gathering, and I’m sure Yale alumni will have conniptions. But I speak from personal experience when I say that this sequence is accurate, fearless, and the most daring thing I’ve seen so far on this show. Justice Smith flawlessly navigates the rapid-fire series of emotions and slights he endures as he tries to play the game. The way his original embarrassment and terror at Shao’s appearance gives way to relief when he realizes he needed his “boy’s injection of Bronx justice” is Smith’s best moment thus far.
Of course, Shao’s exciting, gun-toting “rescue” of Books from “White-Boy Land” is the exact reason for the climactic showdowns between the Get Down Brothers and the guardians who found their kids’ performance money and understandably feared the worst. An angry Papa Fuerte tips them off, and all hell breaks loose. The punishment is quick and severe: No more performing. In a scary confrontation, Mylene blames Shao for the loss of his wordsmith, but we can see both sides now. The Get Down depicts Judgment Day with an equal understanding of the sinners and their judges, and we’re suddenly conflicted.